Note: This commentary was originally published by National School Choice Week.
When people think of charter schools, they often think of schools that serve students in densely-populated cities or in the suburbs.
Supporters of school choice frequently talk about the challenges of extending educational opportunities to students in rural areas—regions that may be sparsely populated but where students still need options.
Nestled along the western outskirts of the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, the town of Tidioute—population 654—may have created a template for expanding school choice in other rural areas. The town offers a charter school, Tidioute Community Charter School, which also serves other families in Warren County.
“Our charter school came out of a need,” said Heather Cass, the school’s administrator. She explained that in 2003, “our county did a consolidation and closed some of the smaller, outlying schools. As a community—because of our distance from other schools and because of the road conditions in winter—we thought it was important that we keep our school within our community.”
After an aggressive community campaign, Tidioute Community Charter School opened in 2005 and serves students in grades K-12.
One key to their success has been to embrace what Cass describes as the “rural-ness of our school.”
“We do a lot of expeditionary activities, and we utilize our community and our natural resources,” she said. “We do river cleanups, we do hiking, we do geo-caching in the national forest, we canoe down the rivers. We go to Penn State, where students and local guides will do electro-fishing on our river, collect samples, and then they travel to actually analyze and use the university labs to talk about the kinds of fish we have in our rivers.”
Focusing on the community’s Native American heritage also provides a way to encourage students to learn about different subjects.
“Right now, we’re doing a project about Indian nations. Tidioute is an Indian community. We’ve done excavations, and we’re currently doing an expedition in our elementary grades where they learn about Indian culture,” Cass said.
The result has been to create a school where students are effectively prepared for college and their careers, while building a broader feeling of family and emphasizing the happiness of individual students.
“Our staff is more family-oriented. Our students—they’re not a number. We have no drop out rate. We have success in students that wouldn’t thrive in as big of an environment because we have that individualized, personalized, attention in our building,” Cass said. “I think what keeps students coming to school, keeps their attendance rates up, keeps them involved and want to be a part of what we’re doing, is making them feel part of this family.”
It is that big family spirit that Tidioute Community Charter School celebrates, every year, during National School Choice Week.
“In January, when we’ve just come through a holiday, it’s that point where you need a little bit of revival, a little bit of energy in the building,” Cass said. “So we do door decorating, class competitions, photo opportunities, anything motivational. The kids write about why they are excited they’re here, what they like about the charter school. We do some fun food days. We remind kids that they do have a choice, and they made a choice to come here and be the best we can be, and just lift everybody up.”
And so, while some school choice supporters view rural school choice options as a big challenge, Tidioute has provided an effective, and effectively happy, solution. That is something to celebrate.
Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.